In the comics as well as the movie, we see that Dr. Manhattan gets so upset about having given his ex-girlfriend Janey Slater cancer that he decides to remove himself from the equation and abandon the Earth.

Since he seems to have almost omnipotent control over matter (he can recompose himself after being disintegrated and he says at the end of the movie that he might even create life in the future), why didn't he simply cure Janey's cancer?

It's obvious that he was losing his humanity, but surely he could easily have fixed the problem just before he left the Earth.

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    Cancer Surgery is not a power, it's a skill and a difficult one to acquire at that. Dr. Manahattan's skills were in physics, not medicine. And there's nothing in the comics that gives any suggestion that Dr. Manhattan's powers would have given him any advantage over a surgeon's tools. Mar 30, 2014 at 18:39
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    @RBarryYoung More or less as difficult as reintegrate himself after being disintegrated or teleport a lot of people to their houses. I think eliminating cancerous cells would be a feat he can accomplish taking into account his other powers.
    – Averroes
    Mar 30, 2014 at 20:06
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    Not really. I can copy an article from the New Yorker or even Fax it to someone, that doesn't mean that I'm qualified to write such an article or even edit it. Mar 30, 2014 at 22:09
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    Not a valid example IMHO. He already is showing awesome (in awe meaning) powers and feats or is it that removing cells is more difficult than being able to teleport someone to Mars or just blow up Rorschach? Also what about his words about create life?
    – Averroes
    Mar 30, 2014 at 22:48
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    @RBarryYoung: He has put himself back together after being vaporized. You're placing ridiculous restrictions on an omnipotent being. I mean, really; he can't 'see' the cells? As if vision as we know it is how a being who can control time and space 'sees' the universe? C'mon. He can do whatever the writers feel like because he is bound by nothing. Feb 24, 2016 at 5:23

5 Answers 5


There's no reason Dr. Manhattan could not have cured Janey's cancer. For all intents and purposes, he has the powers of Molecule Man, a villain so powerful that only his psychiatrist can beat him.

Dr. Manhattan is nigh-omniscient. He can (generally) perceive every instant of time (though it may be limited to things he has/will/is perceive/ed/ing). He literally has known since he first gained his powers everything that was going to happen. He knew the second he reconstituted his body that he would end up, years later, standing on Mars building beautiful, doomed things. He knew that he would forget to give Janey air. He knew that he would forget about the everyday miracles, and that she would remind him.

In a way, Dr. Manhattan is not a character in Watchmen at all. Until the point at which his observation powers no longer work (which, in the comic, was due to tachyons that he postulated (or saw himself postulating) could have been caused by nukes detonating) he is completely unable to take any action excepting those he has already taken. He is, in essence, an actor in the play of his life. He has a script and it cannot be deviated from.

As he cannot truly choose (though he appears, to people with a strictly linear view of time, to make choices all the time) he cannot truly 'do' anything. He, from his viewpoint, has always freaked out in the studio. He has always been standing in a room of 'super heroes' staring at a woman he has always been dating. He has always been catching flack from his then-girlfriend for staring at the young woman he has always been leaving her for.

So, dependent upon your point of view, Dr. Manhattan can't cure anyone's cancer because he doesn't cure anyone's cancer. If he doesn't cure anyone's cancer, he cannot cure anyone's cancer. His powers, however, mean that he could have cured anyone's cancer, at any time.

It's almost like he's in a quantum state - he both can and cannot cure cancer. The only problem is that with Dr. Manhattan, all quantum states have been viewed. They have been collapsed, and there is only one possibility. Schrodinger's cat is not both alive and dead, he was alive or dead before he was even put into the box, but no one knew except Dr. Manhattan.

Once he regains his free will (due to being incapable of perceiving his future state) Dr. Manhattan can act again. But at that point, he doesn't cure cancer. Instead, he decides to become God.

TL;DR: He can't, unless he does, until he can, but doesn't.

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    In earlier drafts of the screenplay he does cure Laurie's cancer. He whines about the nature of choice for a bit but she eventually bullies him into it
    – Valorum
    Mar 30, 2014 at 12:46
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    @Richard: Sure. But Dr. Manhattan observed those events and was always able to cure the cancer. He always knew he would cure the cancer. He was always in the middle of the act of curing the cancer. He just was also always being a jerk about it. Manhattan can't do anything, that was sort of the whole point :-D
    – Jeff
    Mar 30, 2014 at 12:50
  • Actually, at that point in the proceedings he was stymied from viewing the future. He felt that it would be worthless to cure her since the world was clearly ending. It then transpired that he was wrong.
    – Valorum
    Mar 30, 2014 at 12:52
  • @Richard: Ah. Sorry, haven't read that draft so I didn't know when in the script it was. Yeah, after the whole 'I have free will thing' Dr. M went through a mopey 'woe-is-me' phase before his whole 'Oh wait, DEITY' phase. Phenomenal cosmic power in the psychology of a three-year old. My Molecule Man link was closer than I thought...
    – Jeff
    Mar 30, 2014 at 12:55
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    Nice perspective of Dr M Self-fulfilling-prophecy-man status. I liked the quatum metaphor ;)
    – Averroes
    Mar 30, 2014 at 13:23

I don't believe that Dr. Manhattan ever does anything productive with biological systems. Within the movie, you see him blowing up people, but in both the movie and the comics, the only things that he builds or fixes are inorganic objects.

It's part of a greater symbolism where, for all of his great powers, he can't do anything to bring about life, merely sterile inorganics.

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    But he doesn't need to create life to cure cancer. He just has to kill the cancer cells or remove them from her body, which he ought to be able to do since he can perceive matter on a subatomic level and manipulate it telepathically. I mean, he created a skeleton, circulatory system and musculature for himself after he was disintegrated. Mar 30, 2014 at 8:59
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    @Richard: He'd be more likely to remove them one cluster at a time, much as surgeons do. Except he doesn't need to cut anyone open or use a laparoscope or perform biopsies. He'd just destroy the cancer clusters directly and scan the nearby tissue for microscopic cancer sites that a surgeon would likely miss. Mar 30, 2014 at 12:22
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    @Lèsemajesté - This assumes that the tumours are in nice, easy to remove clusters. The cancer caused by Adrian Veidt was a modified lung cancer, basically inoperable.
    – Valorum
    Mar 30, 2014 at 12:36
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    @Richard: The type of cancer it is and to what stage it'd progressed to definitely could have made it impractical for him to treat, even if he does have huge advantages over regular doctors. Mar 30, 2014 at 12:53
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    @Lèsemajesté: Dr. M eventually decides he going to take his toys and go home and build some new human to play with, because Earth bores him. He would have exactly 0 trouble curing any form of cancer, he just doesn't care to do so.
    – Jeff
    Mar 30, 2014 at 12:57

It very much depends on your choice of canon. In the film and comic, his powers are certainly up to the task of interacting with humans on a cellular (or even atomic) level but the reality is that removing the cancer in that way would be prohibitively time-consuming.

I have witnessed events so tiny and so fast...they can hardly be said to have occurred at all...

[later]...like oxygen turning into gold... I've longed to witness such an event

In an earlier draft of the screenplay, Laurie was the one with cancer. Dr Manhattan does indeed cure it. I've edited for brevity;

LAURIE : Then do me a favor. If the world's going to end, it shouldn't matter a bit. I want you to cure me [of cancer]

DR. MANHATTAN : I won't do that.

LAURIE : You have the power to do it. I want you to do it. Please.

Eyes wild, she GRABS his great blue HAND -- and THRUSTS IT into her chest, where it DISAPPEARS UP TO THE WRIST.

A BRILLIANT BLUE AURA engulfs them both. It SPREADS and GROWS IN INTENSITY, suffusing the sky, finally BLOTTING OUT the vast Martian landscape altogether.

LAURIE: What -- am I --

DR. MANHATTAN : Cured, yes.

  • Laurie is Silk Spectre II, the girl who leaves him for Dan, who is there for most of the book. Janey is his girlfriend that Adrian gave cancer to, that he dated before the bulk of the story took place.
    – CigarDoug
    Feb 27, 2016 at 13:38
  • @cigardoug - In the earlier draft, Laurie is the one with cancer
    – Valorum
    Feb 27, 2016 at 14:23
  • Ah, so it is different from the graphic novel, then. I was wondering why so many people were confusing Janey with Laurie in this thread.
    – CigarDoug
    Feb 27, 2016 at 16:39

Almost certainly, but possibly not permanently and he has no motivation to do so

It's difficult to say that Dr. Manhattan can't do something, considering he has seemingly total control over matter down to the molecular level. Janey had lung cancer from radiation exposure. Removing Janey's tumors would be a matter of detecting those cells and removing them. For Jon, he could probably do this while brushing his teeth.

However that does not mean Janey is "cured". Whatever the radiation did to start the body producing tumors could still be at work, it could already be migrating to other parts of her body - and if it is in her blood or lymph, then it is quite possible for the cancer to return, maybe not even as lung cancer. Given Jon's understanding of the world, he may realize this as well. Arguing that Jon could effect someone biologically is easy, it is a bit harder to make a case that he would go around messing with genetics.

And Janey isn't doing herself any favors either:

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But more to the point - Dr. Manhattan may not be able to cure her purely from a psychological point of view. Jon has now taken an extremely deterministic view of the world and does not feel like it his job to stop death and disease. Right before the Janey interview scene Laurie notes:

"I remember soon after he failed to prevent JFK's assassination we argued. I said, 'Jon, you know how every damn thing in this world fits together except people!'"


It’s not about what he can or cannot do, but what he wants to do. He could just cure Jenny's cancer but the thing is by doing so he would have altered the fact that she have already had cancer. Same goes by for rorschach, he could erase his memory but by doing so he's altering the fact that he already gained that information in the first place. I think he doesn't want to ruin space and time continuum too bad and doing things as humanly as possible such as killing a guy and not "washing his brain" or "curing cancer".

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